Interview by Sarah Neubert
(images via the web)
If you've been around the Internet weaving world at all, you already know about Don Freedman. His woven wall hangings are coveted cacophonies of shaggy 70s glory. They pop up in thrift shops for $15, and on Chairish for hundreds of dollars. These iconic wool-and-jute pieces are everywhere - design blogs, Pinterest, and in the homes of many weavers who've been lucky enough to find one - and there's no denying the influence of his work on current weaving trends.
Yet, if you Google Don Freedman, you find very little about the man himself. Lots of weavings pop up in the search, but where did they come from? Is Don Freedman a real person? If so, where is he? Where did he get the inspiration for his work? Does he have any idea the effect his pieces are having to this day? I felt like I needed the answers to these questions and, through a couple of phone calls and a long chain of emails, I discovered that Don Freedman is alive and well, in his late 70s, spending lots of time in his garden, and designing gorgeous clocks, lamps, furniture, lighting and sculptures (he does some of the sculpture himself), which he sells in his home furnishings boutique, Freedman's of Nantucket.
To my delight, Mr. Freedman was happy to answer my questions about his textile work. We conducted an email interview that was fascinating and heartwarming. I found him to be very kind, thoughtful, and full of wise words; he even gave me a valuable and personal critique of my own work. I hope you will enjoy, like I did, getting to know the man behind these iconic pieces.
Where are you from? When were you born?
I was born in a little town called Hillside, New Jersey, in 1937. Everyone in the town knew everyone else, and in school every student went to all the sports events and the plays and the high school dances, and many of my classmates married their high school romances. We were very happy and very naive. I was a very sensitive young man and did poorly in school and had a very dysfunctional family. At that time my guidance counsellor suggested that I be a presser at the local cleaner's. That set me back quite a few years. When I made my first million I wanted to call the counselor and tell him how wrong he was, but by that time I was very comfortable in forgiving him. As a young man my creative energy was just plain weird, and so I am sure that my tests never showed that I was creative.
Your shop assistant told me that you found the inspiration to design tapestries on a visit to India.
This is not exactly correct. I became addicted to yoga and went to a retreat at the age of 34 or 35. We chanted two to three hours a day, plus about three hours a day of Hatha yoga. As I look back, I would say that I was not aware of how out-of-touch I was with my heart and others. I lived what seemed like a normal life, but I was definitely unconscious, and as a matter of fact, I have gone in and out of consciousness most of my life. I feel that most of us go through life just filling the basic needs of existence. We are hungry and we eat, we are tired and go to sleep, we are stuffed from eating and go to the bathroom. But back to my yoga retreat story! After many months of the retreat, I started to have the feeling that there was more to life than I thought. I felt like I was experiencing ideas that were almost messages, and some thoughts that made me feel much, much more aware of myself and the people around me. I am sure this sounds crazy, and to tell you the truth, I was very afraid of all that I was feeling. I remember one evening after chanting for an hour or more, all the other people in the group left, but I stayed and watched the sun set. It was as if I never saw a sunset before, and each moment of the sky changing made me feel more and more energy inside my chest. I felt that I could not hold the energy inside of me, and that the beauty I was watching had to be coming from a God. I cried in hysterics, and for months the experience was right in front of me. Boy, was I afraid. During these periods I looked at people and felt that the entire world wanted to fill the empty places inside of themselves. They all wanted that feeling of sitting in front of a fire with their favorite book, wrapped in a soft blanket. It came to me that I could help people to get that feeling, and it would be through creating tactile art for them.
At the time, I was designing metal sculpture that was being made for me by a wonderful large traditional Chinese family, and I began designing metal sculptures that had fabric in them. I loved designing these pieces. It felt like I was making an environment, not just a piece of art - like I was making something that was all around me, not just something right in front of me. On my next trip to Hong Kong, I decided that I would find what I wanted to design in India. I have no understanding about why I decided that; I guess I just felt it in my heart. Well, I was right - I found some simple weavings in India, and saw such potential for what could be done with the fibers. It took me months to find villages in India where weaving was done. This story can go on and on, but I hope that I have given you some idea of what started me off. In a way my drive was created by my need to fill the empty places inside of myself and others.
What else did you learn or experience in India?
The answer to this would take a full chapter in a book. But I must say it seemed like all that happened was just meant to be. Over the years my heart opened up, and that is when I became much more aware of myself and the world.
Tell me a little bit about your design process.
If I have a process I do not know what it is. At the time [when I was designing weavings] I would just follow what "she" was telling me. Maybe "she" was the God within me. This may sound crazy, but it's just how it felt. I say "she" because I always felt that this work for me was coming from my female side, and it didn't bother me at all!
Have you ever done any weaving yourself?
No, I haven't, and I feel this was to my benefit - I was never concerned about doing a new technique that may have been very time consuming and difficult. I just wanted to get a certain look and I left it up to a weaver or his family to figure out how to get the look.
Were the tapestries created as a collaboration, or were all the designs solely created by you?
The best way to answer this is to say that I could have used any weaver - I believe my ideas were what made the pieces successful. The weavings were produced in rural India. I would watch what the weavers were doing and then suggest what they could do differently to get the effect that I wanted. In most cases the weavers had been doing primitive, somewhat sloppy and cheap wall hangings. I did use some of those designs as a starting point, turning simple geometric styles into designs with a different flow and a recognizable story. It was through days and days of patience and discussions that I worked with these weavers, who had been used to spending maybe 8 hours on a weaving, to create pieces that would take 2-3 weeks each to produce. The new weavings used high-quality mixed materials, and more complex shapes and designs. So in a sense it was a collaboration, but the weaver's ultimate role was just to weave.
Do you know how many tapestries were produced from your designs?
I can only try to remember. I would say there were 130 to 180 different designs and some of them sold up to 50 per month for five or six years, and some sold a total of 10 or 15 each.
I understand that you're cautious about your online presence; is that because you've experienced people copying your work?
Without a doubt. I saw many tapestries with my signature that were just poor copies of one of my designs. Some were not poor copies; a few were good copies - but there was a huge lack of originality.
Does your textile work influence your current designs?
My textile designs came from the same sort of creative energy inside of me, and that period gave me the confidence to let my creative side come out of me. All that I now do is from the same energy that I used in designing textiles. I try to make the most of my creative potential in everything I do, whether it's making up a story to entertain my wife or designing a clock.
Before this interview, were you aware of the renaissance your work is currently experiencing? Is it surprising to you?
No, I was not. It's very surprising and it warms my heart.
Above: Don Freedman in his shop, Freedman's of Nantucket; some of Mr. Freedman's clock designs.
***Do you own a Don Freedman piece? If so, drop us a line on our CONTACT page and tell us the story of how you got it - we'd love to feature it on our feed!***